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Studios push to clean up their act

Hollywood looks to family-focused Dove Foundation and others for favorable reviews.

September 18, 2006|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

A blurb in the print ad for the 20th Century Fox movie "Everyone's Hero," which opened Friday, gave the animated feature five stars, declaring it "A triumphant home run for families!" It's from a critic you've probably never heard of. In fact it's a critic who is not, technically speaking, a person: the Dove Foundation. And no, it's not related to the soap company, though it is squeaky clean. The Dove Foundation is a Grand Rapids, Mich., nonprofit with Christian roots, and its ties to Hollywood are growing so deep these days that its opinion can send a movie back to the editing room before its release.

Weeks before "Everyone's Hero" was released, the film's production company, IDT Entertainment, hand delivered a copy to the Dove Foundation. When Dove staff told IDT that the "Oh, my Gods!" in the film might offend the 1.9 million people who consult the foundation's reviews, IDT changed each "Oh, my God!" to "Oh, my gosh!"

"That's an example of how seriously we took the opportunity with that market," said Amorette Jones, head of marketing for Starz Media, the new name of IDT. "We didn't want anything in the film that would be offensive in any way."

While mainstream movie critics are widely believed to have dwindling sway over audiences, Hollywood is courting a new group of reviewers who live in Michigan and Indiana and Colorado. These reviewers count the "F-bombs" in a picture and alert their constituencies to genitalia jokes and gay characters. With the phenomenal success of "The Passion of the Christ" and "The Chronicles of Narnia," Hollywood is more carefully targeting this crowd, who, they've learned, can help deliver a box office bump.

Studio executives say their outreach to these groups should be seen as smart marketing rather than bowing to a conservative Christian agenda. On the one hand, they say, this is a large, motivated, well-organized niche credited with winning the Bush presidency. Why not reach out to them? At the same time, family films just happen to gross more on average than those without such wide appeal. So why not make more and ensure they appeal to the broadest possible swath of Americans?

"People have recognized in Hollywood that it's good business to be in the family entertainment business," said one studio executive who did not want to be identified for fear of alienating critics. "Whether it's Focus on the Family or Rick Warren, the author of 'The Purpose Driven Life,' there are gigantic religious groups that follow people that have a voice. It's a group that understands who their constituency is better than film critics at large....They are very, very driven and very focused. They are not a silent majority. They're very active."

For these reasons, the nonprofits that speak to the faith and family community are being invited to far more screenings than their small staffs have time to attend, a predicament that just five years ago would have been unthinkable.

"They'll send us to a movie, and we say no a little bit more than we say yes," said Jeffrey L. Sparks, president and chief executive of the family-oriented Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis. "There's only so much we can see.... Every week I have contact with some studio. We're getting early versions of the scripts because they want to see if we're interested."

Traditional movie critics -- those reverent keepers of film history, of the theory and nuances of filmmaking -- have been restricted from a record number of advance screenings this year, among them Columbia Pictures' "The Da Vinci Code" and New Line Cinema's "Snakes on a Plane." And as the films that critics have panned, such as "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," break box-office records, studio executives and filmmakers can't resist lambasting critics as out of touch with the mainstream. A good review from the faith and family community, on the other hand, can save an otherwise forgettable film and even rally large enough crowds to make a hit. The Sony film "RV," with Robin Williams, might have bombed if it had been up to critics.

"The studio should have flushed the script the minute it crawled through the door," wrote David Germain for the Associated Press.

Instead, after a targeted campaign by faith-based marketing firm Grace Hill Media, the picture has earned a respectable $71 million since its April release. Paramount Pictures' August release of the animated feature "Barnyard: The Original Party Animals" -- which Ty Burr in the Boston Globe called "manic, maudlin and borderline creepy" -- has earned $67 million after another Grace Hill campaign. Meanwhile, Warner Bros.' "Ant Bully," which was released a week earlier and did not have a faith-based push, just some good reviews by mainstream critics -- the Washington Post called it "an epic adventure" -- has earned just $27 million.

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